One evening in September, 1965, Bobby Garwood, a 19-year-old Marine private twelve days short of finishing his Vietnam tour,...



One evening in September, 1965, Bobby Garwood, a 19-year-old Marine private twelve days short of finishing his Vietnam tour, drove his jeep to a village about six kilometers outside Da Nang to pick up an officer. It was not until 14 years later that he returned to the US--to face a court martial for desertion. Exactly what happened in between will probably never be known, but Groom and Spencer believe their account (based, in part, on extensive interviews with Garwood) is ""as close to the truth of the Garwood matter as it is humanly possible to get."" It is a compelling story. Captured by the Viet Cong, Garwood was shuttled around through makeshift jungle prison camps and, early in his captivity at least (following an unsuccessful escape attempt), subjected to treatment, graphically described here, that qualified as torture. Then, gradually, two things began to happen. First, Garwood realized that simple survival had to become ""the whole and complete object of his everyday existence,"" so (under the tutelage of a veteran fellow-POW, a Green Beret officer) he learned both the Vietnamese language and how to live in the jungle like the VC, weathering the debilitating diseases, eating insects, leaves, and rats. At about this point, apparently, his captors began segregating him from the other American prisoners: ""He knew the jungle and had survived it. They almost had to destroy him."" The other development was more subtle. A shiftless, white-trash kid who chose the Marines over a juvenile home, Garwood had always displayed a ""reactive rather than active"" character; he now decided that ""he had to pretend to play along--rather than be useless and dead."" Pretending then became reality: there was no dramatic turning-point, and one strength of Groom and Spencer's account is its careful tracking of the gradual process by which Garwood became quite different from the other American POWs. For the Marine prosecutors, Garwood symbolized ""not the tragedy of the Vietnam War, but the cure."" An insanity plea failed, but the court threw out the desertion charges, and a Marine jury found him guilty only of the lesser charge of collaboration. Groom and Spencer axe meticulously non-judgmental: yes, Garwood probably did some of the things he was accused of, but the real question is why. And on that point, Garwood has the last word: ""There were fifteen or sixteen guys in that camp and twelve of them are dead now. I did the best I could."" High-priority, open-ended reading for anyone interested in the POW experience in Vietnam.

Pub Date: Aug. 29, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983